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Georgia’s Bad Dream: Government Failing PR Class

Last week was exciting for followers of Georgian politics. The war-of-words between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition and the opposition United National Movement (UNM) reached a fever pitch which for three years has far exceeded the standard insult-hurling found in democratic politics. The country’s next parliamentary elections aren’t for another year, but the campaigning is already heating up.

The ruckus started after a controversial video was leaked to the public on October 17. The video allegedly contains footage of policemen torturing and raping a detainee while attempting to extract a confession. The footage is reportedly dated from 2011, when UNM was still in office. Release of the video sparked outrage, with protests against UNM sprouting up in the cities of Batumi, Poti, Zugdidi, Tbilisi, Lanchkhuti, Gori, Kutaisi, Ozurgeti and Rustavi. Demonstrators broke into the party headquarters in Kutaisi before being dispersed by police.

Then, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili turned up the heat by implying that members of UNM should be tortured and raped themselves, saying the following during a government session: “They should be grateful for the fact that over the past three years people have not done to them the same what is depicted in these videos – my remarks might be rude, but they deserve it.”

He also referred to UNM as a “criminal organization” and questioned their legitimacy as a political party: “In general, as a citizen, I think that such people have no right to remain in politics. For me Saakashvili and his government represent the face of the masked person, who is raping other persons as shown on that video – this is a symbol of this organization.”

A second “rape video” was posted on Thursday evening on a Ukrainian website. The nine-minute video appears to show a man being raped before confessing to a crime.

It still isn’t known how the videos were leaked. They were apparently discovered by GD officials in the region of Samegrelo in 2013 but the Interior Ministry is launching an investigation. However, some speculate that the government leaked them to deflect attention from the Rustavi 2 court case (to be discussed shortly) as well as a recent NDI/CRRC poll which found that GD is losing popularity among the citizenry. Only 14 percent of respondents said they would vote for GD if elections were held tomorrow, down from 24 percent in April 2015, and even less than the 15 percent who said they would vote for UNM.

It should be noted that a similar video surfaced in September 2012, just days before the parliamentary elections that swept GD into power. Public outrage at the abuses — the video showed prisoners being raped and beaten — led to the resignations of Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Correctional System Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, and doubtlessly had an effect on the outcome of the elections themselves.

UNM’s nine-year grip on power was broken, and then-President Mikheil Saakashvili left the country a year later after losing the presidential election to GD’s Giorgi Margvelashvili. Saakashvili — who is now regional governor in the Ukrainian city of Odessa — is wanted in Georgia on criminal charges.

The brutal video isn’t the only prop in the intensifying GD-UNM tussle. There’s also the court case surrounding Rustavi 2, a pro-UNM television station currently owned by Nika Gvaramia. The Tbilisi City Court is deliberating whether to return Gvaramia’s shares to Kibar Khalvashi, who co-owned the broadcaster from 2004-2006. The shares were seized by the court earlier this month.

Khalvashi claimed that in 2006 the UNM government forced him to sell his shares in the company. He is the plaintiff in the case, claiming to be the rightful owner of 100% of the company’s shares.

Khalvashi is rumored to be close with GD patron Bidzina Ivanishvili, feeding speculation that the case is politically motivated. And with Rustavi 2 being the country’s most popular television station and a beacon of opposition, talk of shutting it down has received a lot of angry responses.

Gvaramia claims that he is being blackmailed by the government in an effort to get him to relinquish his shares willingly. He went on the air on 21 October and told viewers he been approached by Alexi Akhvlediani, head of the European Youth Olympic Festival, who passed on a message from the government threatening to release a video from his private life if he did not “step aside.”

Akhvlediani admitted to meeting with Gvaramia on 21 October but denied passing on any message from the government.

President Margvelashvili (apparently unwittingly) managed to stoke the controversy further while attempting to be the voice of reason. The President started by justifiably criticizing the Prime Minster: “Unfortunately, instead of defusing situation, the statement made today by the head of the government [PM Irakli Garibashvili] added tension to already difficult situation.”

That was all well and good, until he let loose this guffaw in relation to the Rustavi 2 case, “I call on the judge not to make a hasty and rigid decision that may fuel already tense situation.”

That’s right. The President of a self-styled liberal democracy with EU and NATO aspirations just involved himself in the independent deliberations of the Tbilisi City Court. (This kind of speech characterized previous Georgian presidencies, including that of Saakashvili.)

We can be reasonably confident that he simply spoke without thinking, and has no intention of swaying the court’s decision. But if Garibashvili’s incendiary comments hadn’t made GD look bad enough, Margvelashvili was right there to put the nail in the coffin.

This was a great week for journalists looking for prime material. It was a bad week for Georgian politics. The discourse was dirtier than ever, and it seems the only thing GD succeeded in doing was squandering much of the political capital it received from the release of the UNM torture/rape videos. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October of next year. With one year to go, GD looks like it needs to go to public relations school.